In recent days, high-ranking U.S. officials made their strongest coordinated public call for a pause in the civil war that has been raging in Yemen since late 2014. Rising concerns in the public sphere and U.S. Congress about the length and humanitarian toll of the war are motivating this sterner posture. Ultimately, though, Riyadh views U.S. aid for the Saudi-led military coalition fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels as an important sign of alignment — the United States and Saudi Arabia share a common goal of containing Iran's influence in the Arabian Peninsula. The White House wants to continue extending its support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen to counter Iran and eliminate the missile threat posed by the Houthis. However, the civilian toll of combat and growing opposition will make that goal increasingly difficult to sustain politically.
What's Going on in Yemen?
This week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged all parties in the Yemen conflict to agree to a cease-fire within the next 30 days. This marks the strongest coordinated public push so far by the top ranks of the U.S. government for an end to the Saudi-backed campaign by the Yemeni government to defeat the Houthi rebels. Mattis encouraged all sides to meet with U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths in November to hash out details of a cease-fire. Pompeo echoed Mattis, putting the onus on the Houthis to first cease strikes on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. He also called on the coalition to subsequently cease airstrikes against populated areas in Yemen.
Despite the entreaties, preparations by both Houthi and coalition forces are underway for yet another round in the battle for the strategic port city of al-Hudaydah, which serves as a point of entry for food and humanitarian aid into Yemen. The port is a crucial strategic asset for the Houthis, serving as an entry point for weapons and supplies from Iran. Yemeni government officials are reportedly sending up to 10,000 additional fighters to the city to support a developing Saudi-led coalition offensive aimed at wresting control of the port from the rebels.
Why Is the U.S. Broaching the Idea of a Cease-Fire Now?
Political pressure, from within the United States and the world at large, has increased on the White House to moderate its support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, especially in the wake of the kingdom's response to the apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The kingdom's shifting explanations for his disappearance from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, have created a breach of trust between Riyadh and members of the U.S. Congress, where skepticism of the Saudi war effort in Yemen was already high. U.S. lawmakers opposed to the war are preparing legislation that would cut support for the Saudis there. Meanwhile, a new United Nations report has raised alarms about the high risk of impending widespread famine in Yemen.
Even in the face of growing U.S. and global opposition, however, Riyadh will not easily shift its stance in Yemen. The Saudi involvement there is driven not only by its desire to deny Iran a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula through its Houthi allies, but also by the historical animosity between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.
The finger-pointing that undermined the last round of peace talks stands a high chance of repeating itself. A previous effort to broker a cease-fire in September failed when representatives for the Houthis never made the trip to Geneva, where talks were to be held. The no-shows were, in part, prompted by Houthi fears that the coalition would prevent the envoys from returning to their Sanaa base. The wording of Pompeo's cease-fire call, specifically asking the Houthis to initiate efforts by ending their aggression first, acknowledges the difficulty of the process. Houthi political leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi told Houthi-affiliated Al Masirah TV that while he saw the U.S. administration's call for a cease-fire as "positive," the United States should pressure Saudi Arabia to end its bombing campaign.
Even in the face of growing U.S. and global opposition, Riyadh will not easily shift its stance in Yemen.
How Does Congress Factor in?
In the coming year, congressional pressure to stop or slow some U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia will increase, building on the mounting calls in Congress over the last year to moderate overall U.S. military support for the kingdom, including efforts to block the sale of precision-guided munitions to it. (Momentum for these actions could intensify if U.S. midterm elections hand Democrats control of Congress.)
What Does It Mean for the Battlefield?
The window of opportunity for Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni allies to capture al-Hudaydah in a military assault without incurring significant diplomatic costs is closing. The building international pressure against the Yemeni war has likely increased urgency on Riyadh's part to try to reclaim the port, even as the kingdom weights the diplomatic costs of action against the strategic gains. Deploying additional forces to the front near al-Hudaydah gives the Saudis some flexibility going forward, including preserving the option of a military push against the city before the United States can decide to cut its support for the war effort.
At the same time, if the Saudis do launch the assault, the resulting humanitarian toll could accelerate efforts by Washington and other allies to cut off support. Another strategy the Saudis might be considering is to agree to cease-fire talks with the intent of goading the Houthis into sabotaging them, allowing Riyadh to pin any failure on the rebel group. Knowing that mass civilian casualties could result from a coalition assault on al-Hudaydah, one of Yemen's most heavily populated cities, could strengthen the Houthis' resolve to stand and fight. Severe collateral damage, after all, would only further dent the Saudis' international standing.
Watching for Signs of Shifting U.S. Military Support
U.S. military support for coalition efforts in Yemen — including air-to-air refueling, intelligence, and advisory services — are all valuable for Riyadh. Signs that the United States is backing away from its support would include reductions in refueling and targeting missions, any clear movement of U.S. personnel in Saudi Arabia and the continuing block on supplies of precision-guided munitions to Saudi forces. The Defense Department earlier this year said "roughly 50" U.S. personnel were working with their counterparts in Saudi Arabia to support efforts to halt Houthi ballistic missile threats. There are also unconfirmed reports that U.S. elements have been helping Saudi forces carry out border security initiatives.
No matter how strong congressional opposition becomes, the United States is unlikely to entirely cut off ties to the Saudi war effort because of shared goals when it comes to containing Iranian influence and combating the threat of ballistic missile launches into Saudi and Emirati territory from Houthi-held positions in Yemen. With or without U.S. support, the Saudi war effort is not likely to end, regardless.
Finally, any shift in the U.S. presence in Yemen as it relates to the Saudi-led coalition's fight against the Houthis would not affect Washington's ongoing counterterrorism efforts there. The United States will not back away from its fight against al Qaeda, whose Yemeni-based franchise (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) remains strong in the central and southern parts of the country.